A Numbers Game: Counting OCD

A Numbers Game: Counting OCD

Numbers can so often hold a special meaning in all of our lives. Numbers can signify anniversaries, birthdays, or holidays. You can have a number you find lucky or a number you think means bad luck for you. Clearly, numbers are meaningful and important in everyday life. However, for many people with OCD, numbers are important for entirely different reasons. For example, a common symptom of OCD is something known as compulsive counting. This may include counting the number of steps that they take, the number of tiles on the floor, or the number of specific items they have (New England OCD Institute, 2018). But what’s the reasoning behind this, and why is it a big deal for people with OCD?

Oftentimes, those with OCD who experience counting compulsions often do so because of “a strong need for things to be perfect or right” (Anxiety Canada, 2019). This need for exactness is often associated with a more stereotypical image of OCD: the person obsessed with cleanliness and neatness, organizing and reorganizing every inch of their house until it feels right to them.  Oftentimes, with OCD symptoms such as compulsive counting, there may not be a specific fear associated with these behaviors. They may just count until a specific number simply because of this need for a feeling of rightness. But what exactly does that mean? And this begs the question: if there’s no specific fear associated with their compulsions, why do they still feel compelled to perform them? OCD, at its core, is characterized by extreme and intense amounts of anxiety. Certain amounts of anxiety are a healthy part of everyday life. It’s natural to feel anxious about life changes or school presentations or upcoming tests, and these small doses of anxiety can be overcome fairly easily and painlessly. However, for those with OCD and other disorders characterized by anxiety, the anxiety becomes so debilitating and all-encompassing that it feels impossible to ignore or overcome. Therefore, though there may be no specific fear that relates to counting until you reach a specific number, or doing things a certain number of times, the need for rightness and exactness creates a sense of anxiety that’s insurmountable until the person with OCD performs the behaviors that make them feel right.

These symptoms of OCD are so often associated with a stereotypical and negative image of the disorder because many people find it difficult to understand and sympathize with symptoms and  thinking patterns that are not easily explained. Because mental illnesses are invisible, and often only immediately and deeply affect the people suffering from these illnesses, it is easy for many people to dismiss, ignore, or make fun of something that they cannot see or understand. But certain numbers hold a special significance in everyone’s life, even though other people or cultures may not understand the significance of a certain number from the outside.

Overall, it’s important to be willing to become educated about the lives of others in order to better understand other people and what matters to them in life. And it’s just as important for us to no longer remain in ignorance about mental illness and how it impacts those around us. While it may seem easy for people not immediately impacted by OCD to dismiss the disorder as something quirky and silly in regards to a need for neatness, a willingness to become educated will help everyone to better understand what people with OCD really go through on a daily basis.


OCDTYPES. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ocdtypes.com/counting-ocd.php

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.anxietycanada.com/disorders/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/

What are Numbers? (2006, March 14). Retrieved from https://www.philosophytalk.org/shows/what-are-numbers

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